Oct 28, 2020 - Economy & Business

Trump-appointed USAGM CEO removes agency's firewall protections

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Michael Pack, the Trump-appointed CEO of the the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), has posted a notice to repeal a firewall protection intended to protect the agencies it governs, including the Voice of America, from political interference.

Why it matters: Critics argue that without the firewall, there's nothing stopping USAGM-governed agencies from devolving into a propaganda arm of the administration — a move that's common in authoritarian regimes.

Details: Pack published a statement late Monday night saying that he took steps "to rectify a regulatory situation that was both in tension with the law and harmful to the agency and the U.S. national interest."

  • He argued that the firewall was a misinterpretation of the 1994 International Broadcasting Act (IBA) by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency that formerly oversaw the media groups that USAGM now manages. (BBG was replaced by USAGM via a law passed during the Obama administration.)
  • Pack said he "rescinded" the rule "based upon extensive legal analysis of the regulation and its conflict with Congress’s statutory mandate for USAGM – BBG’s successor – to support the foreign policy of the United States."

The big picture: Pack argues that the firewall prevented him from being able to enforce other policies, like ensuring journalists don't exercise bias in their reporting. But mounting evidence suggests Pack wants to be able to remove reporters and executives whom he feels aren't pro-Trump.

  • For example, NPR published a report that alleged two political appointees at USAGM were investigating a top VOA journalist for bias.
  • Rep. Michael McCaul, the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told VOA in response: "I remain very concerned about the state of affairs at USAGM and its grantees like OTF under CEO Pack’s watch."

Lawmakers weren't having it. Members of Congress from both parties quickly slammed the move, arguing that Pack doesn't have the legal authority to rip down a congressionally approved firewall.

  • “After his wholesale firing of USAGM’s network leaders, abrupt dissolution of their boards, and forced reassignment of editors, Michael Pack’s rescinding of the agency’s editorial independence firewall crystalizes his commitment to atrophying the USAGM into a right-wing media ecosystem funded by American taxpayers," Senate Foreign Affairs committee chair Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said.

Catch up quick: The VOA and other media agencies under USAGM, including the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia are used to broadcast journalism around the world to communities that do not have access to quality, independent reporting.

  • The firewall has long been used to protect their independence and establish their credibility around the world.
  • Pack's efforts to slowly unwind the independence of the USAGM-governed agencies, starting back this summer when he abruptly dismissed of all five agency heads in his first few weeks on the job.
  • He's since been accused of hobbling the agencies by refusing to renew work visas for dozens of foreign nationals working as journalists in the U.S., among other efforts.
  • Journalists within the VOA have feared that this move would happen. Earlier this year, many media professionals told Axios that they didn't feel any political pressure around what they reported, due to the firewall.
  • Now, that sentiment is changing.

What's next: Pack's efforts come a week before the U.S. election. If President Trump loses, it's unclear what the future has in store for Pack and the agency. If he wins, sources tell Axios his goal will be to exert power over the USAGM to ensure that the reporting from broadcasters it governs promotes the Trump administration's values, not necessarily the values of unbiased journalism.

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